The Newspaper Interview That Never Happened:
I occassionaly get request to do interviews from reporters throughout the U.S. Generally it is after their local police helicopter is in the news for some reason, or is on the financial chopping block. It probably doesn't surprise you that many of these interviews can now be done over email. Although, many reporters still like to talk to you one on one.
I recently answered a number of questions from a reporter in the midwest, via email. After spending an hour and a half carefully answering each question, I hit the send button and haven't heard a word since.
But wait, I have a Blog! So all is not lost. Here is the interview questions, and my answers:
Why are you interested in police helicopters? Are you a pilot?
I spent five years and four months in the San Diego County Sheriff’s air support unit commonly referred to as ASTREA (Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies). After working the jails for 4 years and patrolling the streets for 15 years, the air unit was a welcome change. I had developed an interest in flying and aviation, but had no real experience. After interviewing three different times over five years, I was selected and began working as an observer or “Tactical Flight Officer.” After 18 months in the unit I began pilot training. Read more about learning how to fly helicopters. The department paid for my entire commercial helicopter rating. I spent the remainder of the time in the unit as a pilot. I only left the unit because I promoted to sergeant. I hope to return to the unit one day as a supervisor.
Did you start the Police Helicopter Pilot website?
I wanted to try my hand at blogging and was researching many different topics to blog about. I kept coming back to law enforcement helicopters. I did a search on the phrase “police helicopter pilot” and found that the number one hit in Google was on a helicopter website that was very negative toward police pilots. In fact this page, which was the top hit in Google, very directly stated that most police pilots were dangerous and not trained properly. The back story to that is that in professional helicopter pilot circles there has always been some disdain toward Law Enforcement Pilots. The reason is that the vast majorities of police agencies take their veteran street cops and train them to be helicopter pilots. Professional helicopter pilots have always seen these as jobs that they should have. This topic police vs. professional pilots has raged for many years in online message boards.
Most large police agencies will tell you that over the years, they have found that it just works better to take a cop and make them a helicopter pilot, than to take a helicopter pilot and make them a cop. The dirty little secret is that virtually every agency in the early 70s launched their air units by doing just that; hiring civilian pilots and making them cops. They found out that it was not the best approach for them. It most likely had little to do with pilot skill since most civilian pilots do have more experience and even higher pilot ratings. If I had to guess I would say that most agencies found that they had better luck selecting from their own employees, who had already worked within their agency for years. They already knew these officer’s reputations, attitudes, work ethic, decision making abilities, Etc.
There are some agencies who opt to hire civilian pilots and pair them with a sworn observer, and these arrangements generally work out well.
So not only was the top hit in Google very negative toward police pilots, I could find very little information on exactly how one becomes a police pilot. I started the website to fill this void, and put a positive spin on Law Enforcement Aviation.
How many police agencies in America have an air support unit?
I would say that virtually every large agency, police or sheriff, has some type of an air support unit, most of which are helicopters. I guess the question would be what constitutes a large agency? I would also say that a significant portion of medium size agencies have some type of an air support unit, even if it is a single helicopter, operated on a part time basis.
Chicago PD is an example of a large agency that actually went without a police helicopter for almost 10 years. They originally had an air support unit but closed it down years ago due to budget cuts. It was re-activated about 3-4 years ago.
Many police and sheriff’s departments over the years were able to acquire surplus military helicopters from the US military through a special program. A number of smaller and medium size departments who otherwise would have never been able to afford an air unit, were able to launch small part time units. Many of those agencies already had former military helicopter pilots in their ranks, so they were able to save money in that area as well.
There are a handful of agencies that operate fixed wing aircraft only, but the vast majority operate helicopters.
How are police helicopters most often used?
This will vary based on the agency, and often the size of the agency. We know helicopters are expensive to operate, so typically the larger cities and counties have more flexibility in how they can use their air assets. As an example, our agency, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department utilizes its air unit to support patrol units on the ground every day.
Primarily this would be responding to crimes in progress, both felony and misdemeanor, but also missing persons. This could be missing children, the vast majority of which are found quickly, and missing elderly such as Alzheimer’s patients. In densely populated areas missing person calls can take a lot of time away from patrol personnel on the ground. Very often, through onboard tools such as the PA, the helicopter can locate the missing child or person fairly quickly, freeing up the patrol units to go back to other duties.
In our county, our helicopters also get a lot of use in the search and rescue arena. We respond to these calls almost daily, somewhere in the back country. They are also used in marijuana eradication missions, both to find the illegal marijuana grows, and then to haul out, or “long line” the pot out of rugged areas once it has been cut down by officers.
Where and how do police helicopters work most effectively?
Helicopters are another tool on the law enforcement tool belt. If an agency can afford them, they are a great tool to have. There are many violent criminals who are taken off the streets sooner than they otherwise would be, because a police helicopter was in the right place at the right time.
There is no question that law enforcement helicopters are most effective when they are already airborne, and when they are within close proximity to location of the crime or incident. In that sense they are no different than an officer on the ground in a patrol car. The shorter their response time to a crime, the greater chance they will have of catching the offender.
The primary difference is that the air crew can generally search and scan an area many times greater, and in a fraction of the time that an officer on the ground can. If a law enforcement air crew can get over a crime scene while the crime is still occurring, and the perpetrator is still on scene, the chances of the suspect being taken into custody go up tremendously. Often, the helicopter can arrive on scene even before ground units and can provide critical information to the responding units, to include suspect’s location and or direction of travel.
Are more departments/offices adding or cutting their helicopter units?
Over the past three to four years we have definitely seen a number of agencies shut down their air units due to budget cuts. Most of these appeared to be smaller to medium size agencies that just did not have the budgets that the larger agencies enjoyed. However, things seemed to have stabilized in the last year or so. I am really not hearing of too many air units getting shut down these days. I think most agencies that were going to have to close their air support units have already done so.
I am seeing more agencies that are migrating toward less expensive ways to keep some sort of air support unit. At least one agency in California has opted to go with a small, fixed wing- two seat airplane which is licensed under the FAA’s new light sport category. Another agency in the Midwest was testing a two seat Gyro-Copter under a government test program. Gyro-Copters are far less expensive to operate than helicopters, but there are no factory built, certified (by the FAA) Gyro-Copters available, only experimental.
The vast majority of Law Enforcement Air Support Units still use the helicopter as their primary patrol aircraft.